'Wizard of Oz': The greatest movie of all time?

Published: Wednesday, March 20 2013 7:31 p.m. MDT

What is the greatest movie of all time?

Logically speaking, there’s no way to come up with an objective answer. In the end, you’re always left defending the movies that you personally like the most. So in my world, it’s a tie between “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” and “The Three Amigos.” Alas, very few artsy authorities agree with me.

Yet despite the lack of objectivity on the subject, there does seem to be a strong consensus, since most “Greatest Flicks of All Time” lists always label “Citizen Kane” as being at or near the best of the best. I spent most of my life taking everyone else’s word for it, because I had never bothered to watch “Citizen Kane.” That changed a couple of years ago when I finally broke down and stuck a copy of Orson Welles’ cinematic opus into my DVD player to kill an hour or three.

I'm sad to say it did absolutely nothing for me.

It’s quite an accomplishment, though. “Citizen Kane” has the look and feel of a modern film, even though it was made with 1940s-era technology. Its advocates insist that this is why it should be recognized as the best, because it set the standard for all the movies that followed. It established the visual touchstones that have inspired all subsequent generations of moviemakers, and every cinematic production remains eternally in its debt.

Except I just don’t think that’s true.

Sure, it has cool camera angles and impressive wide shots, but the visual language of “Citizen Kane” isn’t nearly as groundbreaking as a movie that was released two years earlier, a movie that burned itself into the popular culture in a way “Kane” never did.

I’m speaking of “The Wizard of Oz.”

That’s blasphemy among hardcore film buffs. “Oz” is just commercial, pulp entertainment, they insist, while “Citizen Kane” is true art. But that’s elitist nonsense. “Oz,” the first wide release color motion picture, was more technologically innovative than “Kane,” and, visually, it’s still a film without equal, even in today’s CGI-soaked theaters. As a story, “Kane” is little more than a museum piece. The storytelling iconography of “Oz,” on the other hand, still holds power today.

Every Halloween, little girls dress up with pointy hats, paint their faces green and carry broomsticks as they go trick-or-treating. That wouldn’t have happened if Margaret Hamilton hadn’t established, beyond question, precisely what an evil witch looks like. And better technology hasn’t been able to come up with a scarier villain. Magazines listing the greatest bad guys of all time always include the Wicked Witch of the West somewhere in the top 10. That’s true staying power.

“Oz” was truly the first blockbuster, the first epic fantasy to transport you to another world that was both bizarre and wild and yet somehow wholly believable. Without “The Wizard of Oz,” we wouldn’t have a “Star Wars” or an “Avatar” or a "Lord of the Rings" trilogy — or, at least, they wouldn’t have the look and feel they have as a result of borrowing from the Oz template.

Consider the music alone: The NEA dubbed “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” the greatest song of the 20th century. And think of all the Oz pop culture touchstones that still pop up in 21st century conversations. Even Captain America in “The Avengers” picked up on Nick Fury’s reference to flying monkeys. And as audiences pack the theaters to see the prequel “Oz: The Great and Powerful,” it’s clear the hunger for all things Oz has only increased as the years have gone by.

In the race for the best, score a win for “The Wizard of Oz.” Sure, it’s no “Three Amigos,” but you can’t have everything.

Jim Bennett is a recovering actor, theater producer and politico, and he writes about pop culture and politics at his blog, stallioncornell.com.

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